Years ago in one of my first leadership roles, I was nervous about taking over a department that was new to me. I was seen as a strong manager but I knew that I had a steep learning curve ahead to understand the ins and outs of the work of the department. At the time I believed that I could not lead effectively if I did not know more about the day-to-day work than anyone else. I pored over reports, data, and manuals, attended endless meetings – and never asked questions of my team out of fear that they would see me as weak. I felt I had to know everything there was to know about our area – and that belief made the transition a lot harder than it needed to be.

A common derailer for many leaders is their need to be seen as always having the right answers. Often in our work with leaders and managers, we witness this desire to be seen as all-knowing block information-sharing as our clients wait to deliver all of the correct information rather than facilitating dialogue when the answers are not yet clear. This need to be seen as “right” also hampers creativity as employees grow hesitant to share ideas in an environment where the boss has all the answers (or thinks he has all the answers). And it gets in the way of the leader’s own growth and development as she relies on past knowledge and experience and is slow to adapt to new approaches.

Being willing to admit you do not know something, or that you made a mistake or that there is a better path or more than one path to success, can be hard for someone who sees their success firmly planted in what they know and how well they have performed in the past. The ability to not only learn what we don’t know but to unlearn what we do “know” is part of what we define as Thoughtful Leadership™ skills.

A recent post in the Harvard Business Review blog outlined the steps toward unlearning for professional and organizational growth. Nilofer Merchant recounted her experience delivering a TED talk that did not go as well as she had hoped. Her ability to admit that her presentation was not as great as she wanted it to be, seek honest feedback about her performance, and set about to unlearn some of the beliefs and ideas she had about presenting on a major international stage allowed her to grow and move beyond her need for perfection. In the post, Merchant shared these steps for unlearning:

  1. Admit something is wrong
  2. Ask what specifically went wrong – and get help if you need it
  3. Listen
  4. Begin the process of undoing

Only then, she said, can you focus more on being – being yourself, seeing the “truths” that may be getting in your way, living the width not just the length of life, and being willing to reinvent yourself – without fear of being less than perfect.

If you enjoyed this post, you can read more like it in our book, The Power of Thoughtful Leadership: 101 Minutes To Being the Leader You Want To Be, available on Amazon.

For help in seeing and unlearning what may be getting in your way, contact Robyn at

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